It’s 7 o’clock on the dot and Usher isn’t in a drop-top. He’s on the other end of our Zoom conference line from Atlanta, retelling 25-year-old stories about one of the most monumental moments of his career: the release of his 1997 commercial breakthrough My Way, which turns 25 this year.
His memory of the release of his sophomore LP is a bit blurred, so much so that he compares his mindset at the time to that of a ticket-winning horse at the Kentucky Derby—he had his blinders on, and things happened very, very fast.
“After My Way, I had different types of success with 8701, and then Confessions. [But] the thing that happened in My Way was the establishment of the artist, the establishment of me not being afraid of being bold enough to share who I am and what my experience was in an authentic way,” Usher tells Complex over Zoom. “That’s how I’m feeling [again] right now. I’m just doing what I love doing. What makes me happy, what makes me smile, and what brings joy. And as a result of that, it’s just got me back inspired.”
In 2022 alone, Usher has released a career-spanning Tiny Desk Concert, an anniversary edition of My Way with repurposed versions he created alongside producer Ryan James Carr, a mini documentary focusing on the album’s overall impact and his creative partnership with Jermaine Dupri, as well as added to his Las Vegas residency, which is coincidentally named after the very same album that put him on the map.
So in honor of the LP, we spent a moment with Usher to talk about My Way, Biggie Smalls, his impact on R&B, vision for the future, and more.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
What’s the first thought that comes to mind when you think of those two words, My Way?
Legacy is all about timing and the ability to have had this many years and the celebration of it… I’m very happy that in that time, I decided to be as bold [and] not give up on my dream. [It was] my first time working with Jermaine Dupri, of course. Working with him was something that had always been on my mind. But the fact that we clicked the way that we did, what comes to mind is maybe it was organic, maybe it was ordained to happen. And [it’s] great that it did, because not only do we still have an amazing relationship, but now we are going to take the chance to do it again and reimagine it through some new ideas of music. But it’s a celebration, man; it’s really a celebration that I’m hoping that people from the past get a chance to remember and also people who are hearing it for the first time get a chance to know my history and the history that both me and Jermaine Dupri have. And everybody, by the way, who was part of the album. It’s not just Jermaine. It was Face. It was the writers of that album, right? It was Teddy Riley. I’m just happy to look back at it and just really be excited.
This was the first album that you had written the majority of songs on. I believe 6 of the 10 tracks had your credits on it. I know you said Babyface had taught you a couple things in the studio while recording.
It wasn’t [just] Face. It was more so Jermaine Dupri who really helped me become a writer. It was Jon Platt who gave me my first publishing opportunity, and Jemaine really helped me find my voice as a writer.
But how different did it make this album feel in comparison to your debut, when you had these writing credits on it?
I feel like I was doing it my way. But also I felt like this was an opportunity for me to finally start a journey that I could take ownership and be proud of. I think we all, as artists, have that coaching to start off, right? If someone’s writing your records, or if someone is writing for you, or finding inspiration, because you’re trying to figure out how to do it… Those are really the moments in the beginning, where if their training goes on, there may be success or something that’s great. But you know it’s being curated. And it’s not until you finally grab the bull by the horns and go after your own creative and ambitious ideas that you begin to give people something that is truly authentic to who you are.
Do you recall the early conversations going into this album?
I can’t recall all of them, but the beautiful part about it is that they’re in the songs. Jermaine was really listening to the conversations I was having with people. He was almost eavesdropping on my conversations. And then a lot of it was just a matter of us, just young men sitting around talking about the things that we were dealing with in life. I trusted him enough and confided in him enough to just talk about what I felt. And he as an incredibly classic, timeless writer managed to weave the story into kind of poetic things that became records.
Do you have a personal favorite memory of recording My Way?
I’ll never forget being in the studio in New York City, with Notorious B.I.G. And I’d known B.I.G. from Bad Boy and with Puff from my first album, because I’d really ran around the city at 13, 14 years old with the likes of that hip-hop movement—whether it was Puff or Craig Mack or any of them. But I’ll never forget when me and JD and Lil’ Kim were all in a room working on “Just Like Me.” That was, like, one of the most memorable moments ever. And I felt so fortunate to be able to be a part of their creative process and see them, you know, work on something for my record. They knew who I was. And I had somewhat of a relationship with B.I.G. But JD had a different idea in his mind of what that would become, so that was a really, really major moment.
The other was, you know, I wasn’t a traditional R&B artist, and I’d never really had the childhood pop-sensation record. I was always full of age from the beginning; it was something that I think Puffy wanted to make sure that people understood. I think JD executed it in a different way, because it felt relevant to the way that I actually would talk in any experience that I was actually having in real time. So when I made “Nice & Slow,” [there] was this [song called] “Po Pimp” [by] Do or Die. It was such a cool style, you know what I’m saying? It was the first time that we could define something that would then become the new palette. So the fact that in that moment, we redefined music, JD and myself and Emmanuel Seal, it then became a monumental moment for me.
“In that moment, we redefined music.”
I think about it all the time. We redefined the ballad at this moment because there was no hip-hop version of what R&B is, a hip-hop–ish version of that style. So in that moment, there was like this Midwest Chi-town, king of fast flow that we put into the music. Of course, we would go on to do it in Confessions and albums in the future, but that was the birth of it. That was the birthplace of the new ballad, where ballads weren’t sappy, just all about love, but it was more like, “Man, this feels like culture. This feels like the record that you listen to when you ride in your car. You drop your top, and you’re super cool.” Those were the moments that held for me.
The second you finished recording “Nice & Slow,” did it feel like you were about to redefine the ballad? Or did that feeling come as time went on?
I felt like it was a deliberate thing. And I just wanted to make something that was cool. I wasn’t so focused on making something that was about being in love. It was like, “I want to be the coolest dude.” Where even if you’re not the coolest guy in the room, you put this song on and you feel super cool. And then there was an element that was classic and timeless, like Stevie Wonder or Luther Vandross. They gave you this love song, but they spoke in a way that almost felt immersive. I remember listening to songs by them and listening to Lionel Richie, or Quincy Jones and Michael Jackson working together. Those songs just felt so in the moment. To me, I was trying to paint a picture of an experience. And JD, he was just spot-on, and he just knew how to do it. Like we were living that life. We were having a conversation in real time that was authentic. Now, the truth is, I wasn’t in a sports car. I was in a drop-top that was a Jeep Wrangler. When you put that song on, it was like, “Oh shit.” The visuals that we gave you was us in Paris in a drop-top rolling through the square.
We put it on steroids. But again, the element of recreating R&B in a way that was intended to make you feel like you were immersed in a cultural moment. That felt like it had a lifestyle in it, was aspirational. And when you pull back the layers of it, it felt like, “This is about being cool.” Even if you gotta go get a rental, you know, say a rental car and pull up in a drop-top and get a girl, it felt like, “Oh, this is the new idea of what it is to be chivalrous to a girl.” You know? Take her out. If you wear something nice, you know, compliment her.
And even before “Nice & Slow” or the album itself, you had “You Make Me Wanna” shared as a single—which at that point was your biggest hit. Could you feel that commotion as you were on the circuit promoting the track on Top of the Pops and The Chris Rock Show?
I literally didn’t notice what was happening until it happened, or better yet, after it happened. I remember us being at this UNICEF dinner, and JD comes over. He’s literally jumping up and down. I think it’s a photo of me and JD, and I’m holding up 10 fingers. Because it had been No. 1 for 10 weeks. And he was so happy. You know, and I’m like, “Why is this dude so freakin’ happy?” He’s like, “Boom, we’ve hit No. 1 for 10 weeks.” I’m like, “OK, did we?” But it was just a real genuine moment for me and my brother. It spun out of us just having fun. Being in your basement, working on music, almost fucking garage band-style. And we made something that was timeless, that people love, and for me, it began the journey of trying to get back to that place.
I feel like now, at this juncture in my life, I’m finally getting back to that place where I want to do things my way. And I want to be expressive, and whether you love it or not, I’m offering what I feel is authentic and is raw.
Your touring history is impressive—whether it was having Kanye on the Truth Tour or this current residency. Do you recall getting that call about opening for Janet on the Velvet Rope Tour? That must have been a special co-sign for a young artist.
Of course it was. I felt just as excited when Mary J. Blige called me to have the opening for her, or when Immature called me to open up for them, because it just felt like a building block to something major. I felt the same way when Aaron Hall had me fly over to Germany open up for him, or Puffy for that matter, when he had me open for him. Because I think “You Make Me Wanna” was the first major, major hit record. And there I am on the P. Diddy and the Family Tour, which is an all hip-hop tour with an opening artist that is Usher, that is a complete R&B artist. I saw something happen, magic happened on that band on that stage. If you an opening artist then you know what I’m talking about. It’s normally empty, it’s just nobody there. But I was doing something magical enough to make people get there early to see my show, because they started to hear about it.
“I’d say that My Way was very significant for my era of artists and art history.”
When Janet asked me to come out there and warm up for her, I brought a show that was gonna light they asses on fire. That was gonna get ‘em excited, give ‘em something to remember. I knew I would have all the tricks and all of the lights and all of the things in the space. But one thing that she did [is she] taught me how to be a great headliner, she never crippled me, man. One thing I’ll say about her, she gave me every bit of stage that I had, anything I wanted to have on stage she made sure that I had, she didn’t cut my sound short, which a lot of times, you know, artists will do that. They won’t give you the full range of the entire speaker system, because they save it for themselves. But she showed me that, “Yo, if the show is great, people gonna remember the whole experience.” People, ‘til this day, come to me and say, “Yo man, it was one of the greatest performances that I ever saw and I didn’t even know who you were. I’m there waiting to see Janet Jackson, and here you go walk out on this stage… This kid who really made me a fan.” That’s what makes me happy when I know I can earn it.
Back in ’97 you were asked about the crossover appeal of the album and there being that taste of hip-hop and pop in it. You said that “pop in America nowadays is hip-hop and R&B.” The most popular songs on the charts today often include hip-hop, or have R&B influences. How much of a hand do you think this album played in guiding us here?
It would be left to people to do the study to be able to find comparisons to what other artists did. Because now things are easily forgettable, like you can literally just kind of just forget about things because you don’t remember the pioneers or the people who did it first. I’m not gonna say that I was the first pioneer of hip-hop and R&B, obviously, you had JD and all the stuff that he did with So So Def and Xscape and all of those guys. Or what Puff did for that matter with all of the artists he worked with from Mary J. Blige or Uptown Records and the stuff that they did, right? But I’d say that My Way was very significant for my era of artists and art history and reminding people that even though hip-hop mattered, R&B did as well, because I do think that it became more about the opulence and the lifestyle more so than the dance and the entertainment. I can literally remember a time when dance was not popular, when it was almost like it was shunned, like you doing too much if you go to the club and you sweat it out. Like nah, man. But that’s what entertainment is about. And My Way reminded people: it is cool to be opulent and drink the drinks, and pop champagne, and have nice cars and nice clothes, and shit like that. But hell, what about entertainment? Or what about, you know, still managing to be cool in the way that you’re singing and serenade her with flowers and saying some really fly shit to her?
R&B offered that. Hip-hop does it, too. R&B is a different expression because you’re singing, and you’re dancing, you’re performing, you’re giving it your all. You can feel it and you can see it. It’s not really what’s behind the veil. Because hip-hop, you don’t really try too hard, meaning I ain’t really gotta scream into it, sing into it falsetto, sing a note that makes you emotionally feel something. It’s all about wordplay. But R&B is an emotional journey… So don’t you forget it. Let’s keep that going. And let’s keep that energy.
You are an artist who has maneuvered changing sounds, eras, and changing tastes almost effortlessly since. What does it mean to you when a newer artist approaches you about your impact, whether it’s, in this case, My Way or any other album that helped guide them into their career? What do you take away from those conversations?
I’m humbled that they even listen [and] that my passion led them. I’m very appreciative of that. And then I hope that as a result of that, it causes them to do the same for other people. Music, as a spiritual thing, is a gift that keeps on giving. There’s something much deeper buried in the songs than just the words, it’s the energy that’s there. And specifically for R&B, where in a lot of ways, it’s been discredited for many years as being the source of, in my opinion, all of the other genres. If I were a historian and just kind of gave you a little recap of how musical history goes, it really starts with jazz. And from jazz, you get R&B. And then from R&B, you get all these other genres of music, and I’m just talking about the ones that have rhythmic patterns, or beats. I’m talking about rock and roll, alternative, all of those… country included. I feel like R&B is a great, and probably the greatest, source. And meanwhile R&B would be the one that we could easily disregard and almost kind of do away with, it hurts me when I look at it.
For the years in the past where I see, you know, a decline of relevance of vocal awards, like the vocal award is R&B, you know, best vocal performance, especially the R&B category. So when I see it at award shows or you know, when I look at some of the magazines, and I see that they’re putting together hip-hop and R&B… Don’t get me wrong, I think we are part of each other, but when you say that, to me, that’s almost like [an] erasing of history to say “R&B doesn’t matter as much. We can, you know, shift it over to this other area, because maybe there’s more relevance.” That to me is scary, because again, I feel like R&B is the source of it all.
What do you want your legacy to say in another 25 years, when you look back at these records and the ones you continue to release?
Hopefully they won’t just be looking at the records that I put out, they’ll be looking at the businessman that I was. Looking at the businesses that have been spun as a result of this culture, and the ability to talk to people, you know, from different walks of life or ethnic backgrounds, right? And [they’ll] see that business is representative of a lifestyle, a lifestyle that people celebrate because it’s aspirational, and because it makes you feel good, and it makes you feel hopeful rather… I would hope they would see me as a contributor to culture, that what I have offered far exceeded just the good times that I gave you in song and dance and performance.
“I feel like R&B is a great, and probably the greatest, source.”
Because Lord knows, I ain’t gonna be… I think I’ll be 80 years old and still have it, you know what I’m saying, don’t get me wrong, because I’ve seen incredible performers like James Brown or even The Whispers. They still will bust ya ass. Or Prince for that matter. But I would want them to know that the contribution that I offered far exceeds just music, that it makes you feel something. And once you see that, it’s more. It’s in the product, it’s in the lifestyle, it’s in the knowledge, it’s in the information that was left as a result of that music connection. You trusted me enough to give me your ears, will you give me your heart? Will you allow me to be a part of these different spaces that are, you know, part of your everyday integral life, what you choose to wear on your body or what you know, you choose to enjoy. The places I go, restaurants, clubs, whatever, I would hope that it wouldn’t just be music because there’s something else on the horizon. I say that because of something I just said to you a minute ago, which is, I feel inspired again. I really, I feel like for many years, I’ve been just kind of trying to figure out how to chase what I had done as opposed to just doing what I do, and enjoying it and having fun doing it.
But I feel like I’m back at My Way again. I feel like I’m back at the image that I was at when I first started after my first album didn’t do as well as I wanted, but I did it my way.